Our Opinion: Culture, economy reduce summer job prospects for teens

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Serving sandwiches, bagging groceries and running cash registers used to be as much a staple of summer vacation as sandlot baseball and weekend trips to the beach.

Yet today, fewer teenagers are working summer jobs, and high-schoolers are less likely to have night and weekend shifts at local restaurants and retail stores than in generations past, according to national employment studies.

Nearly six in 10 people ages 16-19 had jobs in July 1986, the Associated Press reported. Thirty years later, the proportion of working teens is down from 57 percent to 36 percent.

Researchers and analysts cite a couple reasons for the trend — college admissions have become more competitive and teens are more likely to invest time boning up for standardized tests or volunteering to pad their applications; and older workers displaced from higher-paying jobs are occupying the entry-level positions.

As parents often say, school should be children’s “job.” Yet many modern families seem to have no trouble shuttling teens to sports practices and games, music lessons, club meetings and other extracurricular activities. Perhaps it’s a matter of priorities rather than time.

Part-time jobs can be a valuable experience for high-schoolers, who learn about responsibility, work ethic and money management. Thanks to inflation, the days when teens would squirrel away the cash they made waiting tables to buy their first car seem a relic of a bygone era, but when brand-new SUVs and top-of-the-line smartphones are given rather than earned, it’s no wonder that many young people don’t learn the value of a dollar until student loans come due.

If millennials are slow to mature, some of the onus is on indulgent parents. Those who put off earning their first paycheck until they graduate college may be in for a rude awakening, especially if a job in their chosen field isn’t immediately available.

On the flip side of the coin, the Great Recession and the lagging local economy have done no favors for our workforce’s youngest members. At 7.5 percent, Wilson County’s unemployment rate is third-highest among North Carolina’s 100 counties. Neighboring Edgecombe County is second-worst at 7.8 percent.

Teens increasingly have to compete with adults for entry-level jobs, and limited availability due to school and family activities can work to their disadvantage. We can’t fault young people when doors are slammed in their face, but we do wonder how many are knocking.

When to start work is an individual and family decision, but we hope Wilson employers will provide opportunity and fair consideration to teenagers who want to learn and earn at local businesses.